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The Czech Presidency: Crisis Management or

In document The 2009 Czech EU Presidency: - CORE (Pldal 69-91)

The Czech Presidency has drawn several lessons from the crisis. Probably the most important was that the EU can very easily be held hostage by disputes between third parties over strategic energy supplies, and that it lacks efficient leverage to exert pressure on them. In a way, this has helped the Presidency advocate one of its main aims: devising and pushing for alternate gas corridors to Europe (such as Nabucco) and for energy diversification generally, to reduce Europe’s dependence on unstable and unreliable suppliers or transit countries (in the Czech case, this means opening further debate on nuclear energy). The Presidency was undoubtedly aware of the political dimensions of the whole problem. A positive sign was that the Czech Government acted as an impartial mediator and did not take sides. Internally, however, some officials admitted that the whole case was viewed inside the administration as a political game on part of Russia to undermine Ukraine’s credibility in the EU and perhaps even to under- mine the emerging Eastern Partnership.

The Czechs proved to be quite successful mediators, although their involvement was substantially weaker after the deal on EU expert monitor- ing was signed. The high diplomatic activity of the Prime Minister paid off, as many feared that he might not be taken seriously, particularly by Russian representatives, also due to the bilateral controversy over the pro- posed US radar installations in the Czech Republic.119This success could also have been bolstered by a strong alignment with the Commission and certain EU leaders, particularly Angela Merkel, on the whole issue. The Czech performance in the gas crisis was also an exception in that it was reported rather positively by the foreign press, including the German and French press.12+

making at the national level, emphasised by the management model chosen for Presidency operations, were thought likely to slow down Council processes. Together with unfavourable external factors (e.g. EP elections and the end of the European Commission’s term), the lack of European political leadership experience on the part of Czech political elites and their lack of interest in EU issues were expected to minimise the ability to initiate new projects.

To explore the performance of the Czech Presidency’s management of day- to-day operations, short questionnaires were sent to the representatives of the EU Council, European Commission and Permanent Representations of EU Member States to the EU. Unfortunately, the response rate was so low that it was impossible to draw substantiated conclusions based on a sufficient number of responses.121Some observations are, however, interest- ing as they suggest avenues for possible further research. Generally, the evaluations differ considerably depending on the respondent’s country of origin, the representatives of new Member States generally rating the Czech Presidency performance higher evaluation,122of the Czech presidency, either being more indulgent or not having enough experience to make proper comparisons. This variable, however, needs to be dealt with and seen in the context of the dossier for which each respondent is responsible, the activity level of the Presidency in a given area, and conflict potential with the agenda/dossier.

To evaluate the findings, some Czech insiders were also asked to rate the Presidency’s perceived performance. As seen and commented on from the Czech Republic, the role of the Czech Permanent Representation was emphasised and the quality of its work usually rated highly. As well, the ability to arrange successful interinstitutional negotiations, especially trialogues with the European Parliament on certain dossiers, was under- lined. On the other hand, lack of analytical capacity and diplomatic resources was perceived, especially in the Office of the Government. In the area of external relations (the ‘Europe in the World’ priority), power shifted back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the Presidency and some rivalries remained between the Office of the Government and the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

121Of approximately 300 potential respondents, only 12 returned the questionnaires.

The deadline for delivery was before the fall of the Czech Government.

122Including respondents employed in EU institutions such as the European Commission and Council Secretariat.

Seen from the Brussels perspective, the Czech Republic’s ability to carry out the Presidency’s administrative functions was a little above average.

The quality of coordination, scheduling and chairing of the meetings at the working level was evaluated differently in relation to the dossiers. A general observation was that the chairpersons of the working groups were usually also tasked with the organisation and secretarial management of the work (distributing agendas, for example), which often resulted in delays due to their frequent presence in meetings and the lack of informed supporting staff; in other words, secretarial tasks were poorly delegated. As well, in the Permanent Representation, the designated contact persons for administrative issues related to meetings were often missing. Rather small teams were usually responsible for each dossier, which was foreseeable;

however, according to some, the communication within some of the teams was slow. The general ability of the Permanent Representation to coordinate its performance was evaluated as well above average, and in some cases was explicitly mentioned as superior to that of its imminent predecessor.

However, the most problematic element observed was a lack of decision- making competence. Most of the compromises drafted had to be sent to the capital for explicit approval by a minister or deputy minister, which delayed consequent procedures in the Council. The ability to coordinate interinstitutional negotiations was rated well above average, while the rated level of procedural knowledge and cooperation with the Council Secretariat varied in relation to the dossier, as did the rated language ability (some respondents were rather critical on this count). The variable that scored the worst was the ability to conduct informal consultations and bilateral meetings; in this regard, the Czechs were criticised for lacking a proactive stance and for having a limited number of bilateral contacts.

As for the agenda-setting function, the rating was below average. There was some criticism of hasty and poorly-communicated agenda reshufflings (one relevant tool of a Presidency in reaching its goals), but the main problem seems to lie in the ability to start new projects or initiatives.

Despite the limited manoeuvring room allowed by the winding down of the European Parliament and Commission mandates, the Czech Presidency was perceived as un-innovative, tending to choose non-conflicting issues (again, the rating depended largely on the respondent’s dossier).123

123With the fall of the Government, the Czech Presidency will most likely prove to be a lame duck, even in the areas where it tried to develop new initiatives.

As for the function of honest broker, the Czech Presidency’s ability to mediate compromise was generally rated well above average. The Czechs were commended for their willingness to listen and for their effort to prevent the big Member States from dominating the smaller ones. The Presidency generally scored well in terms of credibility, fairness and neutrality at the working level, though its rating was substantially lower at the COREPER level. This could be linked to the observation that the level of national political influence on proposal content and Presidency behaviour was rather high. In fact, some issues unpopular with national political elites were not discussed at all, the final compromise formulations could not contain anything inconvenient to the Czech Government, and in some cases, the Presidency supported and adopted minority positions if they were in line with domestic politics. The Presidency’s proposals were generally seen as good and pertinent. However, according to some, problems did appear when the Presidency did not consult sufficiently with the Council Secretariat.

As stated above, the number of survey respondents was unfortunately too low to yield representative results. Broader and more in-depth polling, including personal interviews, would be needed to gather sound data. After the unflattering depictions of the Czech Presidency in the Brussels press and elsewhere, the authors were rather surprised by the overall positive evaluation of its day-to-day performance.


Its early start of Presidency preparations, including drafting priorities and holding discussions with various stakeholders, indicated that the Czech Republic was taking its first EU Presidency very seriously. The centre–

right government in power viewed the Presidency as an opportunity to bring fresh ideas and a reform agenda from ‘new Europe’ to what is some- times viewed as a calcified way of thinking in the EU. This motivation was also reflected in the Presidency’s overarching motto: ‘Europe without barriers’. During preparations for the Presidency, the Czech political representation set itself extremely ambitious goals and arguably too many priorities for a mid-sized, relatively new EU Member State. The original list of priorities was gradually pared down as the Presidency approached.

In the face of external developments, the Czech administration was becom- ing much more realistic as to what was achievable, especially given that the French Presidency had already concluded some of the dossiers the Czechs had originally hoped to tackle, such as the energy–climate package and the CAP Health Check.

The execution of the Czech Presidency was heavily influenced by two general factors. The first one was an extremely complicated external environment. The economic crisis largely shifted the focus of the Presidency from a pro-liberal, activist economic agenda to defending the basic economic principles on which the EU is founded and curbing Member States’ appetite for protectionism. The two initial crises – the outbreak of violence in Gaza and the gas dispute between Ukraine and Russia – made the first weeks of the Presidency into mere crisis management. The Presidency also had to face the substantial scepticism, sometimes border- ing on hostility, of the West European (particularly French) press and of the European political leadership, and extremely low expectations connected with its assumption of office.

The second important variable was the significant internal political instability of the Czech Government. The Government was unsure of its support in Parliament, and although there were attempts to conclude an

‘armistice’ with it, the opposition finally initiated the vote of no confidence that resulted in the Government’s resignation. This effectively deprived the Presidency of the necessary political capital for the rest of its term.

It turned the big showcases of the Presidency, such as the summit with President Obama or the Eastern Partnership inauguration summit, into courtesy meetings rather than high-level summits. In the remaining time, there is speculation and fear as to the role of President Klaus and whether he could worsen the already damaged reputation of the Czech Republic. In

addition, the controversies surrounding the Lisbon Treaty turned out to be very damaging for the Presidency’s work, as the Government was unable to promote its ratification robustly enough and defend it, particularly in the upper chamber. Paradoxically, the fall of the Government might make it easier to complete the ratification in the Czech Republic during the Czech term. However, the legal agreements paving the way for the second Irish referendum will have to be tackled under the Swedish Presidency.

It is difficult to evaluate the Czech Presidency’s midterm performance in light of the unfavourable external circumstances and the extremely agile French Presidency that preceded it. The performance that started a bit hesitantly, with dubious performance during the Gaza crisis, was gradually winning political points for tackling the gas crisis and the spring economic summits, and Czech political leadership started to win more confidence among fellow European leaders. The lethal wound came with the fall of the Government. To the detriment of the Presidency’s credibility, it was a move that the country’s political leadership could easily have averted. This points to a striking lack of statesmanship on the part of the Czech political representation, to thinking limited to the domestic political playground rather than the wider European arena, and to an inability to live up to certain EU expectations. What is potentially even more worrying is the precedent that the Czech Presidency, with its internal political ructions, could set for the future: other new Member States holding the Presidency could well be viewed by other EU Member States with a priori suspicions similar to those applied to the Czech Republic. It will also definitely (and this is in fact already happening) strengthen those EU voices calling for a thorough review of the institution of the Presidency, including the need for a permanent presidency of the European Council that would give this body more continuity, stability and credibility.


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In document The 2009 Czech EU Presidency: - CORE (Pldal 69-91)